Why Do Aka Foragers Point Their Teeth?

28 Jul

My doctoral dissertation in anthropology (Fancher 2009) was based on Aka and Bofi foragers of the Central African Republic, so I incorporate a lot of “pygmy*” materials into my cultural anthropology and archaeology classes. The wonderful documentary A Caterpillar Moon has been part of every cultural class I’ve ever taught. One of the more intense scenes in this film shows a young Aka male getting his teeth pointed – this is done with a knife and without anesthetic! It looks extraordinarily painful and, not surprisingly, students always ask “Why do they point their teeth?”

 

 

The Aka youths in A Caterpillar Moon explain that they get their teeth pointed to attract a mate; both males and females suggest that no one will marry someone who leaves their teeth as they are. This was always the best explanation I could offer: Because in Aka culture pointed incisors are considered attractive. In other words, conformity to arbitrary cultural standards of beauty. That’s really all it takes for something to become normalized across generations. And, once they become established, it takes a very brave trendsetter to decide to not do the “normal thing.” In this case, who wants to risk their long-term happiness to avoid the short-term pain of tooth pointing?

Of course, when students asked the obvious follow-up question, “Why are pointed incisors considered attractive among the Aka?,” I was stumped, usually offering a lame “because they are…” After all, how many fashion trends in the U.S. make sense? Now, thanks to Bonnie Hewlett’s ethnographic research, I have a more complete answer. Hewlett interviewed an Aka woman named Nali who explained:

“If you do not get your teeth pointed, people will laugh at you and think you look like a chimpanzee, so you get your teeth pointed to distinguish yourself. It is good to do this. If you are a man or a woman searching for a wife or husband and you see someone who does not have pointed teeth, you say, ‘You there, you are like a chimpanzee. You have big teeth like a chimpanzee! I do not want you.’” (Hewlett 2013:106. Listen, Here Is a Story: Ethnographic Life Narratives from Aka and Ngandu Women of the Congo Basin. Oxford).

Many human cultures engage in beautification processes to distinguish themselves from other animals (How many examples can you think of in your own culture? Please comment below). Nali’s explanation provides a cultural rationale for why pointed teeth are considered attractive in Aka society. If unmodified incisors were associated with chimpanzees in my culture, I’d probably opt to get them pointed too!

Other forest forager groups practice tooth pointing, or have in the past. Haviland et al. tell the tragic story of Ota Benga, an Mbuti pygmy housed in the Bronx Zoo in 1906. Unfortunately, Ota’s sharpened teeth were not seen as a sign of his humanity (as among the Aka), but “as evidence of his supposedly cannibal nature” (2013:97. Cultural Anthropology: The Human Challenge. Also see Bradford and Blume 1992. Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo). It’s astonishing that the same cultural practice can be so differently interpreted depending on one’s perspective. It also highlights a simple truth of anthropology: When in doubt about why people in a foreign culture do something “strange,” ask them.

 

*Forest forager is the preferred term (see Hewlett and Fancher 2013).

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